Thursday, October 28, 2021

Hitchcock Fridays - my Hitchcock movie viewing project

I have a movie-watching project for the next few months - renewing my acquaintance with Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve been involved in a number of interesting recent online discussions of Hitchcock’s films, which caused me to check back on my movie viewing log. I was somewhat shocked to realise that I hadn’t seen any of Hitchcock’s movies for about twenty years.

My tastes in movies, and my views on movies, have changed a lot over those twenty years. I suspect that my responses to some of Hitch’s movies will be very different today. Twenty years ago I was well and truly under the Hitchcock spell. He was a genius and I was prepared to make excuses even for some of the lesser movies. I suspect that today I’ll approach his work with a much higher degree of scepticism.

I also realised that I have very strong views on some of his movies (particularly Suspicion, Notorious and Marnie) but it’s possible that those views are based on hazy or even inaccurate memories of the actual films. I’d also be interested to find out if I have more favourable (or possibly even less favourable) responses to some of the movies in the Hitchcock canon that even I at the height of my Hitchcock worship regarded as turkeys (movies like Topaz, Torn Curtain and Lifeboat).

I’m also hoping to see some of Hitchcock’s British movies in decent prints. I’ve seen almost all his early British movies but at the time I saw them they were only available in truly ghastly DVD releases. I’m especially keen to see Young and Innocent and the 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much again.

There have been some great recent Hitchcock discussions at ahsweetmysteryblog and they have really re-awakened by Hitchcock obsession. And a review of Marnie has just appeared at the RealWeegieMidgetReviews blog.

I don’t know how long I’ll stick at this project but at the moment I’m enthusiastic. I might even have a Hitchcock Friday feature here in addition to my regular posts.

First cab off the rank is going to be Suspicion. I’ve always found that if you want to get into a knock-down, drag-out argument about a Hitchcock movie then Suspicion is the movie to pick.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Saigon (1947)

In the late 40s there was a craze for American movies with the names of exotic cities as the title - Calcutta, Macao, Singapore, Lisbon, etc. Most of these movies are great entertainment and most of them fit at least peripherally into one of my all-time favourite sub-genres - tropical noir. Tropical noir was a very big thing at the time, with movies like The Bribe and Hell’s Half Acre.

If you want to be picky some of thee movies might be better described as tropical melodramas or tropical adventure melodramas. I don’t mind how you classify them, if a movie was made at that time and it has a tropical setting (or any kind of similar exotic setting) then it’s a movie I want to see.

Which brings us to Saigon, released by Paramount in 1947 and starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (who were at that time just about the hottest leading man-leading lady combo in Hollywood).

Major Larry Briggs is in Shanghai where he’s just been released for his wartime air force service. He’s just had a shock. His co-pilot and best buddy Captain Mike Perry (Douglas Dick) has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He has two, maybe three, months to live. Briggs tells the doctor that he’ll give Perry the bad news. But he has no intention of doing so. He and their other surviving wartime crew member Sergeant Pete Rocco (Wally Cassell) decide they’re going to make Perry’s last months the most exciting and fun months of his life.

To finance all this fun Briggs accepts a flying job from a shady character named Maris. Since the pay is $10,000 for one flight the job can’t be honest but Briggs wants that money to give his friend a couple of months of high living. Maris is supposed to be the passenger but when the plane takes off there’s a different passenger aboard - Maris’s glamorous secretary (played by Veronica Lake of course). Maris himself didn’t make the flight and Briggs figures that the flurry of gunshots they heard just before takeoff may be the reason for that.

Briggs and his buddies now have Maris’s ten grand. In fact they have fifteen grand - Maris’s secretary (we learn that her name is Susan) offered them a bonus just before takeoff. They have all that dough, which is not a major problem, but they also have a very angry very pretty blonde who seems like she might be a very big problem. Pete Rocco has already had to give her a sock in the jaw. Pete thinks that’s the approved way of dealing with over-excited females.

They decide to head for Saigon but the plane doesn’t make it. They end up in a paddy field in Indo-China. It’s not too bad, nobody was hurt, they make it to a nearby town and put up in a hotel. The fly in the ointment is a policeman, Lieutenant Keon (Luther Adler). Keon is one of those very civilised very polite very friendly cops who gives the impression he might be rather good at his job. He’s very interested in these new arrivals in his territory and he seems particularly interested in Susan.

Larry Briggs is rather curious about Susan as well. Was she just Maris’s secretary? What was the reason for the flight that Maris wanted to take out of Shanghai? What’s in the briefcase which she clutches so tightly? Susan doesn’t reveal much about herself but she’s obviously a woman with a few secrets. Briggs is a smart guy, He knows if Lieutenant Keon is interested in the young lady then he has a good reason for being interested. Briggs figures it might be worthwhile finding out a bit more about Susan, especially since poor doomed Mike has fallen for her and fallen hard.

Alan Ladd is perfectly cast as Briggs, a tough guy with a sensitive side but a tough guy all the same. Susan is obviously set up to be the femme fatale and that’s the sort of thing Veronica Lake could do quite competently. Of course Susan might not be a femme fatale. She could be an innocent dupe. Or she could have become involved in something a bit dubious and then gotten in deeper than she’d intended. Lake plays the part with enough ambiguity to keep us interested. And of course, as always, there’s some heat between Ladd and Lake. It could be love, it could be lust, it could be hate, it could be all three. Luther Adler has fun as the ever-smiling Lieutenant Keon.

Leslie Fenton directed. He was not exactly one of the big name directors in Hollywood at that time. After a not terribly distinguished career he quit the film business in the early 1950s.

This is not an easy movie to track down. I found an Italian DVD which includes the English soundtrack (with removable Italian subtitles). The transfer isn’t fantastic but it’s acceptable. This Italian disc appears to be the only DVD release the film has had. I was involved in an interesting discussion recently on Riding the High Country about tropical noir and the difficulty of getting to see some of the key movies in that genre, including this one.

Saigon has plenty of hothouse tropical atmosphere and it has a few definite noir touches. It’s not a great film, Fenton’s direction is lacklustre and it suffers a little from being in effect two films at once - a sentimental romantic melodrama and a noirish thriller. It’s just a tad disjointed. But it looks great and Ladd and Lake, in their final pairing, are good enough to carry the film through a few weak spots. Recommended.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Malpas Mystery (1960)

Each of the seven Edgar Wallace DVD boxed sets released by Network includes an extra movie that was not technically part of the Edgar Wallace cycle made by Britain’s Merton Park Studios. In the case of Volume 6 the extra movie is The Malpas Mystery, a low-budget independent feature very much in the same mould but made by a different company. In fact it was screened on US television as part of the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater series. The Malpas Mystery was released theatrically in 1960. And it was actually based on an Edgar Wallace novel (The Face in the Night).

Audrey Bedford (Maureen Swanson) has just been released from Holloway after serving nine months for her part in a jewel robbery. She was framed. Even the cop who arrested her, Inspector Shannon (Ronald Howard), thought she was innocent but the jury unfortunately disagreed.

Now Audrey is staying with her sister Dora (Sandra Dorne). Audrey is rather surprised when Dora’s rich boyfriend Lacey Marshalt (Allan Cuthbertson) suggests that Dora invite her to one of his exclusive parties. Audrey is in for some other surprises as well. Lacey’s mysterious next door neighbour Malpas offers her a job. A detective agency offers her a job. And Inspector Shannon is being very friendly towards her.

There’s already a slightly sinister atmosphere creeping in. Malpas is a very strange guy who is clearly up to no good. In fact we get the impression that he’s some kind of criminal mastermind. His house is very spooky, festooned with cobwebs but with doors that open automatically. Nobody ever gets to see his face.

And why is everybody so interested in Audrey?

Malpas is not the only mysterious character. There’s also Torrington (Geoffrey Keen), who is searching for a particular man and a particular woman. Almost everybody seems to have some sort of scheme going and there seems to be some connection between all these schemes. One man has already been killed and it’s not impossible that more murders will follow.

Maureen Swanson makes a likeable heroine. She had a brief career in film before marrying into the aristocracy. Ronald Howard and Allan Cuthbertson were very reliable actors as was Geoffrey Keen and it’s no surprise that all give fine performances. Sandra Dorne was another starlet who never really made the big time although she was kept by with television work in the 50s and 60s. Her performance is quite solid.

Sidney Hayers did lots of television directing but made few features. Those he did make included the superb The White Trap (1959) and the terrific gothic horror film Night of the Eagle (1962) so he really should have had a better career.

The script (by Paul Tabori and Gordon Wellesley) is more than serviceable enough to keep things interesting.

From the late 40s to the early 60s it seemed like the British just couldn’t make a bad mystery thriller. Some very better than others, some were absolutely superb but even the lesser examples were pretty good. This is one of the better examples. It has the classic Edgar Wallace feel with plenty of devious twists and everyone up to something mysterious or shady.

And since this is Edgar Wallace there are secret passageways!

Network have as usual provided an excellent anamorphic black-and-white transfer, without any extras on the disc.

The Malpas Mystery should please Edgar Wallace fans and it should also please fans of British mystery/crime B-pictures. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Libertine (La Matriarca, 1968)

Pasquale Festa Campanile's The Libertine (the original title is La Matriarca) is a 1968 Italian sex comedy but it's a world away from the average sex comedy of the 70s. This film is more a sophisticated, stylish, witty and very clever (and very funny) comedy of manners. It all starts when a young widow discovers her deceased husband's secret life and this starts her on a journey of self-discovery.

You can read my full review on Cult Movie Reviews here.

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Great Gatsby (1949)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel The Great Gatsby has been filmed four times. The 1926 silent version is lost. The glossy 1974 version with Robert Redford is generally despised, and rightly so. The 1949 version, the one we’re concerned with at the moment, is the most interesting but it has its problems and it’s not in general highly regarded.

The story, as told in this movie version, is the story of bootlegger Jay Gatsby (Alan Ladd). Gatsby was born penniless and clawed his way to the top in the rackets. Now he’s fabulously wealthy and has just bought a palatial home on Long Island. And he’s spent a fortune turning it into a display case for his wealth. Gatsby’s motivation is simple. During the First World War he fell in love with a girl named Daisy. They were to be married but by the time he returned from the war she had married Tom Buchanan. Tom Buchanan is immensely wealthy and he is Old Money, with impeccable social credentials.

Gatsby has never accepted his rejection by Daisy. He has spent eleven years amassing a vast fortune in the firm belief that with his new-found wealth and a veneer of sophistication he can win Daisy back. It is now 1928 and he is ready to put that plan for winning back Daisy into action.

The best moment in the film has Gatsby showing off his possessions to Daisy, firmly convinced that she will be convinced that he now has both wealth and class. But of course he doesn’t really have class at all. All he succeeds in doing is demonstrating his vulgarity. But he’s like an excited little boy and it’s a rare moment in the film with real emotional punch.

The real tragedy is that Daisy is just not worth it. She’s shallow and selfish and she married Tom Buchanan to attain money and social position. She’s a more reprehensible social climber than Gatsby - Gatsby is at least driven by love, however misguided and unrealistic that love may be.

Disaster strikes and Gatsby is confronted with the truth, but can he ever accept the truth about Daisy? Was he ever in love with her or was he always in love with an illusion?

The best thing about this version is Alan Ladd as Gatsby. Gatsby has to be played as a man with superficial sophistication but we have to be able to see the tough guy underneath. He has to be good-looking. He has to be sexy. He has to be emotionally immature but we have to know that the emotion is real. Ladd fought tooth and nail with Paramount to land this rôle which is odd because he was always the obvious choice and he nails it perfectly.

Macdonald Carey is passable but a bit dull as Nick Carroway, a man both repelled by and fascinated by Gatsby. Barry Sullivan is stiff and uninteresting as Tom Buchanan. Ruth Hussey is at least lively and entertaining as Nick’s love interest, the ruthless shallow Jordan. Shelley Winters is permanently overwrought and rather irritating as Tom’s mistress.

The weak point is Betty Field’s whiny thin performance as Daisy. It’s impossible to imagine any man willing to devote his life to such a vacuous female.

The distinctive aspect of this version is the sharp contrast to the pretty (but empty) 1974 version. This 1949 Gatsby is sometimes described as a film noir Gatsby. Of course nobody in 1949 had heard of film noir but it does seem that a conscious decision was made to give it a hardboiled feel, with harsh black-and-white cinematography and a brooding slightly paranoid atmosphere.

I love the poster used as the cover for the Australian DVD release - Gatsby in a trench coat and fedora, surrounded by dangerous dames. It promises guns, girls, gangsters and two-fisted action. There is of course no two-fisted action but there are guns, there are dangerous dames and Gatsby is a gangster.

It’s a bit of a stretch but you can make a case for it being film noir, with Gatsby as the noir protagonist (a decent man brought down by excessive wealth and a no-good dame). And with Daisy as the femme fatale, a woman whose true nature seems to be something that Gatsby just cannot see.

In fact if you forget the idea of the movie as an adaptation of the novel and treat it as film noir it just about works, thanks to Ladd’s performance and the moody cinematography of John F. Seitz. Elliott Nugent’s unfocused direction and Betty Field’s dismal performance prevent it from being great film noir but it just about makes it as average film noir.

Despite its flaws it’s an interesting movie and for that reason it’s recommended.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944)

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is a 1944 adventure romance from Universal, starring Maria Montez. It was shot in Technicolor so this is no B-movie. By Universal standards (they didn’t have the kind of money that MGM or Paramount would have thrown at a production like this) it counts as a lavish costume epic.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the movie has very little (in fact almost nothing) to do with the original story Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (which is of course one of the tales of the Arabian Nights). The movie turns the pauper Ali Baba into the son of the Caliph of Baghdad and it turns the band of cut-throats, thieves and murderers into courageous freedom fighters against the evil Mongols (who do not appear in the original story at all). This allows the writers to add some clumsy wartime propaganda about the crusade for freedom and democracy.

In the movie version the Mongols have captured Baghdad and slain the Caliph. The Caliph’s son Ali escapes. Wandering through the countryside he sees a band of robbers emerge from a cave. The leader of the thieves utters a magic word and the stone portals of the cave close. Once the thieves have ridden off Ali uses the magic word to open the portals again and finds a cave overflowing with treasure. In the original story Ali proceeds to rob the thieves of their treasure but that would make the hero of the story a thief himself and that was obviously not acceptable in a 1944 Hollywood movie.

So instead Ali (renamed Ali Baba by the thieves) persuades the thieves to join him in freeing the land from the wicked Mongols, thus ensuring that freedom will triumph.

Ten years later Ali Baba (now played by Jon Hall) is the de facto leader of the band of thieves and freedom fighters.

The plot gets going when the thieves decide to kidnap the betrothed of the wicked Mongol Khan Hulagu. What Ali doesn’t know is that the lady in question is his childhood sweetheart Princess Amara (Montez).

Amara is Arabian and secretly hates the Mongols and of course she doesn’t want to marry Hulagu. Her father (the treacherous brother of the murdered Caliph) has forced her into it.

There are usual adventures and complications that you expect in a swashbuckler, with Ali and Amara not recognising each at first and not realising that they are destined to be together, no matter the cost.

Director Arthur Lubin handles the action scenes reasonably well. The film slows down a little in the middle.

It soon becomes obvious that this is more of a Robin Hood movie than an Ali Baba movie. The Mongol Khan can be seen as either the wicked Prince John or the equally wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, Princess Amara is obviously Maid Marian and Ali Baba is even more obviously Robin Hood (with the Forty Thieves being Robin’s Merry Men).

I must say that I’m very fond of Maria Montez. No-one is going to claim she’s a great actress but she has the fieriness and the exotic beauty to be perfect for this sort of rôle in this sort of film. Montez was Spanish (although born in the Dominican Republic) but that wan’t going to deter Hollywood from casting her as an Arabian princess. Spanish, Arabian - it was all the same to Hollywood. And in a way they were right. What they needed was an actress who could be exotic and Montez could do that with ease.

This movie reunites Montez with Jon Hall, her co-star in Arabian Nights (also an excellent adventure flick) and Cobra Woman (which is great fun). He’s not Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power but he was OK as a cut-price adventure hero and it’s Montez’s star power that carries the movie anyway (and yes, in this genre she really did have a certain star power).

Turhan Bey is good as Amara’s slave. Kurt Katch is a fairly effective villain as Hulagu. Andy Devine (with his distinctive voice) provides comic relief without being too irritating and without distracting from the adventure and the romance which is what the movie is all about.

I should mention that the opening credits are done in a very clever way.

My copy of the movie is the old Universal Backlot Series DVD which looks very good. There are now both US and UK Blu-Ray releases which I’m sure look even better.

Personally I prefer Arabian Nights with its more interesting visuals and its fairytale atmosphere. Montez also starred in the extremely interesting Siren of Atlantis which is also a bit more interesting than this one.

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is still a well-mounted second-tier swashbuckler. Recommended.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Alias Nick Beal (1949)

Alias Nick Beal was released by Paramount in 1949. It’s a movie with a strong film noir look and lots of film noir elements but with supernatural elements as well.

Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) is a crusading do-gooder District Attorney who has been trying for years to nail a racketeer named Hanson. Now a mysterious stranger who calls himself Nick Beal (Ray Milland) offers him the chance to do it. It will involve a slightly illegal act but it’s all in a good cause and bending the rules just this once in order to convict a ruthless gangster can surely be morally justified.

Foster’s sanctimonious political cronies are so impressed by his success in convicting Hanson that they decide he’d be an ideal candidate for governor. The state needs honest men like Joseph Foster. Men who will never compromise on principles. Even though Foster has just compromised his principles.

Nick Beal keeps cropping up, subtly pushing Foster into more compromises. Nick has a protégé, a young woman named Donna Allen. Under Nick’s instructions (he has a strange hold over her) she insinuates herself into Foster’s life. Under the influence of Nick and Donna Foster makes deal with crooks and with corrupt political machines. Foster’s progress seems unstoppable and he does indeed make it to the governorship. And then he discovers the price he will have to pay.

Very very early on you will have figured out that this is an updating of the Faust legend, done in the film noir visual style. Maybe it seemed at the time to be a clever idea - a man selling his soul to the Devil in return for worldly power would seem to be something that would work in the context of 20th century politics. This is however the dullest stodgiest most ham-fisted version of the Faust legend that could possibly be imagined.

The first problem is that it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Foster. He’s a self-righteous prig and he’s pompous and generally creepy. For me it doesn’t help that he’s played by Thomas Mitchell, an actor I generally dislike. There’s no real sense of tragedy here since Foster is a smarmy hypocrite right from the start and it’s impossible to care what happens to him.

Donna Allen is an uninteresting cardboard cut-out character. Audrey Totter was a great actress but this script gives her nothing to work with. She just doesn’t come across as a real person. Totter has some good moments but overall gives a confused and disjointed performance.

Ray Milland is fun as the Devil (it’s clear from the start that Nick Beal is the Devil, or rather he’s presumably Mephistopheles) but it’s a rather obvious performance.

The supporting players are uniformly awful. George Macready as Foster’s preacher buddy does little other than deliver dialogue in the form of sermons.

Foster’s moral dilemmas are just too simplistic and everything in Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay is heavy-handed.

One positive thing I can say about this movie is that Lionel Lindon’s cinematography (heavily reliant on shrouding everything in fog) is effectively moody. And Donna’s apartment is a great set. It really looks like Lucifer took up interior decorating.

Franz Waxman’s score is bombastic.

The ending will have you wanting to hurl a brick through the screen.

I can see why the material appealed to hyper-religious director John Farrow, but he was probably the wrong director. The movie ends up being a simplistic morality tale with everything painted in black and white.

There are a few decent ideas here. Foster justifies his moral compromises by convincing himself that he’ll be able to do so much good if he wins the gubernatorial race.

Kino Lorber’s DVD (there’s a Blu-Ray version as well) offers a nice transfer and there’s an audio commentary by Eddie Muller. An interesting bit of trivia that he offers is that Farrow turned down the chance to direct The Great Gatsby in order to do this movie.

This is not even remotely a film noir. A few night scenes and lots of fog does not make a film noir.

While there was some potential in the idea Alias Nick Beal ends up being a serious misfire and I cannot in all conscience recommend it.